Friday 27 February 2015

Are we Infomation Processers? (A brief note)

I thought about it a lot and I kept thinking: OK, he’s right, I guess, the information is in the light, it has to be there, because where else are you going to get it. It has got to be there and if it’s there, there’s a sense in which you don’t have to process it at least not in the way that I used to say “process.” But if he’s right, what am I going to do about cognitive psychology? How can I reconcile cognitive psychology, as I knew it, with this theory of Jimmy Gibson’s?
Ulric Neisser, from Szolkolszky, 2013

Are we information processors? No. At least, not if Gibson was right.
Information is clearly important, though, because we talk about it a LOT according to this Wordle.
For James Gibson, information is external to the observer. Information is structure in energy arrays (e.g. the optic array for light) that is specific to the object or event in the world that caused the structure. This structures becomes information when we use it to coordinate and control our behaviour.

This information is not transmitted. At any given possible point of observation, there is a uniquely structured optic array that an observer can interact with by going to (or more likely through) that point of observation. That structure is there as soon as the lights have come on and the light is done filling up the space.

This information is also not processed, because it does not 'get into the system'. The nervous system doesn't take information onboard, it resonates to that information; it's dynamical behaviour is altered by detecting that information

What about all the steps that have to happen once the information is detected? Doesn't the information have to be transformed into a behaviour? No. Behaviour simply is the activity of the kind of embodied system that we are in the presence of that particular information. We can alter the kind of embodied system we are via learning, but all the way through learning, the behaviour you exhibit at any given moment simply is that activity.

Therefore, in the radical embodied, ecological approach, it makes no sense to say that cognition involves information processing. This is due to 'information' in REC referring to Gibson-information, not Shannon-information. Shannon-information is not something that exists. It is an abstract description of how to reduce uncertainty between a sender and a receiver. It's an amazing idea; it's the heart of the digital revolution we live in and it's a powerful analysis tool (read James Gleick's great book, The Information for the history). It's just not describing what biological organisms are interacting with. 

Is this merely a semantic issue? Are we cheating by just defining away the problem? No. It's about precision in terms. Information means something very specific in the REC framework, that meaning is not the same as it is in the information processing framework and this difference has consequences. Following up on those consequences is what radical embodied cognitive (neuro)science is up to. We will either be right or wrong, and the data will tell us which, but only if we stop making this basic confusion.

Thanks to Greg Hickok (Twitter, blog) for arguing with me a lot on Twitter about this which helped me clarify a few things, and to everyone else who got into it too. You guys are a big help with your obstinacy and your refusal to take what I say at face value :) I think this post might be the first of a series of 'Brief Notes' where I just try to lay out one thing as clearly as I can. In true Gibson style, I reserve the right to keep critiquing and modifying the details as new evidence comes in!

Szokolszky, A. (2013). Interview with Ulric Neisser. Ecological Psychology, 25, 182–199. Download